From the excellent book, A Pour of Rain, by Helen Meilleur, 1980. "Stories from a West Coast Fort."

The 1860's


A transitional decade on the NW Coast.

The fur trading Fort Simpson staff gamely battled the competition from the Indians, the Russians and the invading schooners, and then they had to face further competition from some unlikely sources. The most threatening of these was William Duncan's mission at Metlakhatla.

To understand why a new mission settlement, twenty miles distant, could be a threat to the mighty Hudson's Bay Company, one has to know something of the equally mighty William Duncan. He has been chronicled, extolled, criticized, eulogized, cursed and adulated to the point where I had resolved to leave him entirely to my predecessors. I soon found that trying to describe the mid-nineteenth century on the north coast without mentioning William Duncan was comparable to describing the final decade of the eighteenth century in France without mentioning the French Revolution.

Duncan was the young Church of England missionary who, nine and a half months out from England, preached to the Tsimshimeans in their own tongue; bested Legaic, chief of all the Tsimsheans, in a contest of wills and survived; and led an exodus from Fort Simpson to Metlakhatla by canoe, to save his followers from the 1862 smallpox epidemic and from the debauchery that was rotting Indian life.

Metlakhatla grew and thrived to become a veritable wonder. There Victorian English life was superimposed upon an ancient Tsimshean village - successfully. Duncan taught his people not only the white men's religion and ways but also their forms of law and government and their accomplishments, especially music. The community was partially supported by the industries and trade, all conceived and directed to the smallest detail by William Duncan. Unfortunately for Fort Simpson it was a glowingly successful career in business that Duncan had renounced at age twenty-three to enter a seminary.

He knew exactly what he was doing when he opened a trade shop at Metlakhatla to supply his converts with the materials of culture. The business soon outgrew the village and took to the sea, as well, in the schooner Carolina. The Carolina held her own among the liquor traders and , with all the Tsimshean fur trade secrets to guide her, swooped in and out of the settlements, particularly the Hudson's Bay Company's favorite Nass settlements. Mr. Moffatt ended the 1863 journal with the dispirited note: "Mr. Duncan is doing us a great deal of harm and I fear his opposition more than schooners'. In fact if he continues the trade much longer I see no alternative but for us to shut up our shop."


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